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What Is A Hate Crime? Public Perception Versus Legal Definition In The Chapel Hill Shootings

Photo: Mohammed Elgamal, chairman of the Islamic Association of Raleigh, and leaders from national Muslim advocacy organizations.
Jorge Valencia

When three young Muslim people were killed in a Chapel Hill apartment last week, their families, friends and advocates from around the world said they knew why: Their neighbor shot them because he hated their religion.

Chapel Hill police didn’t deny that claim, but didn’t validate it either. Within a day of the shooting, authorities said the neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, had been disgruntled over a parking space.

As it turns out, there are wide discrepancies between establishing a hate crime in a court room and a hate crime in the court of public opinion.

A hate crime is a crime committed on account of a person’s race, religion or some other protected status, and it has been created in federal and state laws because American society has found “that invidious discrimination is anathema to our nation’s laws and values,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino.

Why Is It Difficult To Prosecute A Hate Crime?

The point of hate crime laws is to recognize when a crime affects not just individual victims but also the community to which they belong, Levin says.

Yet prosecutors nationwide don’t often use hate crime statutes in murders like last week’s shooting of Razan Abu Salha, a 19-year-old architecture student at NC State University; her sister Yusor Abu Salha, a 21-year-old who had been accepted to the UNC School of Dentistry; and 23-year-old Deah Barakat, Yusor’s husband and a student at the dental school. That’s because, Levin says, it’s easier to prove only that a suspect was aware of the crime he was committing.

"However, getting into their mindset as to why they did it can be shrouded, particularly if the defendant doesn’t make statements or doesn’t have any overt communication with regard to his motive."

So it’s more complex – and it presents the risk of confusing a jury – for a prosecutor to prove that a murder was motivated by a particular bias than it is to prove simply that the suspect committed the murder. This means a prosecutor is more likely to get a conviction and maximum penalty in the absence of a hate crime charge.

It can be disempowering for a community to see that police aren't responding adequately to a crime. 'It reinforces this perpetual marginalization that 'We are a group of second class citizens.' - Brent Cox of the Matthew Shepard Foundation

“The American justice system is much better at retributive punishment justice than it is at restorative justice with respect to victims and communities,” Levin says.  

Many people saw the 1998 killing of James Byrd, Jr. at the hand of white supremacists in Texas as an obvious hate crime. Yet two of the perpetrators got the death penalty, and the third got a life sentence without being charged for a bias crime. And the two suspects in the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old living in Wyoming, similarly received life sentences.

What Does The 'Hate Crime' Designation Mean For A Community?

Brent Cox, who directs programs to raise awareness of hate crimes at the Matthew Shepard Foundation in Denver, says it can be disempowering for a community to see that police aren’t responding adequately to a crime.

“It reinforces this perpetual sort of marginalization,” Cox says, “That says, ‘We are a group of second class citizens, we are vulnerable, and the people tasked with protecting us aren’t even doing that.’”

Many people in America who are Muslim already feel vulnerable. According to a Pew Research Center survey taken last summer, Americans felt less warm toward Muslims than they did toward any other religious group.

Joe Kennedy, a professor at the UNC law school, says the Chapel Hill police are in a catch-22. 'On the one hand, they don't want to neglect a hate bias aspect of this crime. On the other hand, they don't want to exaggerate it.'

But using last week’s shooting to raise consciousness about anti-Muslim bias could potentially risk distorting the events that took place, says Joe Kennedy, a professor at the University Of North Carolina School Of Law. Any public statement for the Chapel Hill police is like a catch-22, Kennedy says.

“On the one hand, they don’t want to neglect a hate bias aspect of this crime. On the other hand, they don’t want to exaggerate it,” Kennedy says. “If, in fact, this wasn’t a hate crime and if you call it such, you might unnecessarily alarm the larger community.”

For many people, the shooting feels like a hate crime. Authorities have yet to determine whether it is for legal purposes. The Chapel Hill police say that, with the help of the FBI, they’re looking at all possible motives. The suspect, Hicks, who is in custody, is scheduled to appear in Durham County Court next month.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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